Insect of the Week: Bees in the Forest

Adapted from page 23 of The Lives of Bees:

Crowd of forager bees recruited to help exploit a square of comb filled with sugar syrup, at the start of a hunt for a wild colony’s home.

How abundant are wild colonies of honey bees? Building on the 1978 study of the density of honey bee colonies living within the Arnot Forest, other biologists have investigated this matter at various sites in North America, Europe, and Australia. The first of these additional studies was led by Roger A. Morse, the entomology professor at Cornell University who generously let me start working in his honey bee laboratory when I was still a high school student back in 1969. He and a team of seven graduate students conducted their study in the spring of 1990, in the small port city of Oswego, on Lake Ontario in northern New York State. Their investigation was triggered by the discovery of a colony of Africanized honey bees—a hybrid between European subspecies and the African subspecies A. m. scutellata —nesting in a shipment of pipes from Brazil. The presence of these exotic honey bees raised concerns that Africanized bees, and the fearsome ectoparasitic mite (Varroa destructor) that these bees could carry, might have been introduced to North America, so attempts were made to locate all the honey bee colonies living near the port so they could be checked for Africanized bees and Varroa mites. Newspaper and radio advertisements were run offering a $35 reward for information on honey bee colonies living in the semicircular area within 1.6 kilometers (1 mile) of the port. Eleven wild colonies living in trees and buildings, and one managed colony residing in a backyard beehive, were found. This work revealed that in this small city, the density of the wild colonies was 2.7 colonies per square kilometer (7 colonies per square mile), much higher than what Kirk and I had found in the woods of the Arnot Forest. Fortunately, no Africanized honey bees or Varroa destructor mites were found.

A still higher density of wild colonies was found in a remarkable study conducted by a team of biologists led by M. Alice Pinto at Texas A&M University in 1991–2001. This group worked in the Welder Wildlife Refuge, a 31.2 square- kilometer (12.2 square- mile) nature preserve in southern Texas. Their aim was to track the “Africanization” of a population of wild honey bees living in the southern United States, and they did so by sampling the colonies living in this wildlife refuge before, during, and after the arrival of Africanized honey bees from Mexico. Africanized honey bees are derived from a founder population of an African subspecies, A. m. scutellata, that was introduced to Brazil from South Africa in 1956. The purpose of this introduction was to crossbreed a tropical- evolved African subspecies with several temperate- evolved European subspecies already in Brazil to create a honey bee well suited to tropical conditions. However, several colonies of A. m. scutellata escaped from the quarantine apiary, thrived in the Brazilian climate, and spawned strong populations of wild colonies of this subspecies throughout the American tropics.

The Lives of Bees: The Untold Story of the Honey Bee in the Wild
By Tom Seeley

Humans have kept honey bees in hives for millennia, yet only in recent decades have biologists begun to investigate how these industrious insects live in the wild. The Lives of Bees is Thomas Seeley’s captivating story of what scientists are learning about the behavior, social life, and survival strategies of honey bees living outside the beekeeper’s hive—and how wild honey bees may hold the key to reversing the alarming die-off of the planet’s managed honey bee populations.

Seeley, a world authority on honey bees, sheds light on why wild honey bees are still thriving while those living in managed colonies are in crisis. Drawing on the latest science as well as insights from his own pioneering fieldwork, he describes in extraordinary detail how honey bees live in nature and shows how this differs significantly from their lives under the management of beekeepers. Seeley presents an entirely new approach to beekeeping—Darwinian Beekeeping—which enables honey bees to use the toolkit of survival skills their species has acquired over the past thirty million years, and to evolve solutions to the new challenges they face today. He shows beekeepers how to use the principles of natural selection to guide their practices, and he offers a new vision of how beekeeping can better align with the natural habits of honey bees.

Engagingly written and deeply personal, The Lives of Bees reveals how we can become better custodians of honey bees and make use of their resources in ways that enrich their lives as well as our own.

This post is part of a series, explore additional posts here<< Insect of the Week: Beekeeping in Ancient EgyptInsect of the Week: Honey Bees in the Natural World >>